“The block of granite which was an obstacle in the pathway of the weak becomes a stepping stone in the pathway of the strong. That block of granite is often nothing more than a decision.”
– Thomas Carlyle
Drugs and persons with the disease of addiction have always been treated and projected as enemies of the public. This was the exact approach of President Richard Nixon of the United States when he declared the ‘war on drugs’ in the year 1971 stating it to be ‘public enemy number one’.
Following this declaration he doubled the measures of controlling drug use and its supply backed by strict, draconian laws and zero tolerance policies which boomeranged. It destroyed thousands of lives, led to mass scale incarceration of persons with substance use disorder, creation of criminal records which gave way to large scale unemployment, corruption, wastage of tax payer’s money, political destabilisation, violation of human rights, acute rise in crime not only in the United States of America but also in Asia and Africa with rippling effects across the globe.
The devastating effects were the result of the thought that if the supply of drugs was stopped, drug offenders imprisoned, demand would automatically decrease and consequent problems eradicated.
The reasoning of demand and supply is that if supply of a commodity falls without fall in demand, it leads to increase in price and fall in demand of the commodity. But this is not applicable to the demand of drugs which remains constant on price increase.
Instead of demand decreasing, alternate ways are created for supplying drugs to meet the needs of the consumers.
Narrowing our focus and coming to our own State, the war on drugs here began in the late 1980s. Mr. Utpal* recalls that around 1987-88 when abuse of prescription drugs was rising and had become a menace, the authorities were delegated special powers to deal with the drug problem.
He further stated that authorities had claimed and advocated that within six months they would wipe out the drug problem by treating it as a law and order issue. They used their power to bust, nab and arrest users; they published their photographs and personal details on media. This resulted not only in more drug use and peddling but also led to increase in drug related crimes; they could not stop the flow of drugs into the State which sadly persists till today.
So the question is - are there other measures or ways out of this predicament? The good news is that there are better methods of tackling this problem.
We can start by taking the example of Switzerland.
In the 1980s Switzerland was faced with the epidemic of heroin abuse and other interrelated problems. The authorities, instead of using stringent laws and retributive measures, adopted the method of “harm reduction”.
They opened free Heroin Maintenance Centres where people with heroin addiction were given care, treatment, clean rooms, shower facilities, medical supervision and social workers who helped them with their various problems like employment, housing and their reintegration into society. This resulted in a mammoth fall in drug related crimes, drug abuse and drug trafficking.
Portugal worked on similar lines and in 2001 Portugal adopted a drug policy of decriminalising all forms of drugs.
A commission was set up comprising of lawyers, doctors and social workers for the purpose of giving aid and treatment to the drug dependents. 16 years after the adoption of the policy, Portugal has seen a decline in drug use, drug induced death, HIV infection and the problem of drug use has become manageable as compared to other countries.
In Sikkim, according to Mr. Prakash*, ‘Care Treatment’ was adopted during the late 1990s when there was a rise in injecting users and sharing of needles among them and worse, taking used needles from the waste in hospitals which led to grotesque consequences such as gangrene which was often followed by amputation of the user’s arms or legs and spread of other diseases such as HIV and AIDS.
The Sikkim State AIDS Control Society, in order to prevent more harm implemented the “Targeted Intervention” Policy (the TI Policy). Through this policy SSACS established ‘Drop-in Centres’ where users were given new syringes in exchange of old syringes, food, care, treatment, and other medical facilities. The results were encouraging and after 10 years since the implementation of the TI Policy there has been a substantial decrease in injecting users.
The fight is still on and after 30 years of effort and despite powers vested in authorities we can safely say through the evidence and exhibits that the war on drugs on the supply side is a tad discouraging. The prohibition of drug abuse is not the solution; it will only open gateways for addiction, creating a lot of human misery and despondency.
It is time to adopt a new policy and work on novel methods of care on the demand side of the drug problem and assist people who are punished on a daily basis for being ill and open our eyes to the need of people with substance use disorder.
It is time to stop the Hate Treatment and begin the Care Treatment.
As has been rightly said by singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?”
[The writer is a Vth Semester student of Sikkim Government Law College]